Opinion » Viewpoint

A Sisterly Feud

Memphis-vs.-Nashville scraps could scuttle some big plans.



Legislators right now are about to get their nightgowns over their heads (as former Governor Ned Ray McWherter used to say, memorably) concerning a series of simmering disputes between the Davidson County legislative delegation and what we might call the Western Axis, meaning the General Assembly's West Tennessee leadership in league with the Shelby County delegation.

All balled up in this are matters as mundane as parking places and as serious as a thermal plant and the projected basketball arena in Memphis.

The latest dispute to pop up was a quiet little bill to give the state veto power over Metro Nashville's ability to close any street in conjunction with any event at the state Capitol, Legislative Plaza, or War Memorial Building.

As best as one can tell the bill is being pushed by the legislative leadership because at some time or other in the past some legislator got his or her nose out of joint because she or he could not get into the legislative parking lot under the plaza.

There is speculation that some legislators were in a snit because the plaza, including the legislative parking lot, was closed off twice this past year by the Secret Service for security reasons involving public appearances by then Vice President Al Gore during his presidential race.

Well, if our legislators think that a little state law is going to make any difference to the Secret Service, they better think twice. Any agency that could and did invade a funeral parlor unannounced and commandeer a hearse and a coffin for the just-assassinated President John Kennedy is not going to give a tinker's damn whether a state legislator can get into his or her parking place.

In order to fully understand some of these legislative tug-of-wars, one has to understand that Nashville is not in the center of the state when it comes to power in the General Assembly. In fact, if you measured that power by weight, the fulcrum would probably be underneath a point near Jackson.

This uneven situation exists because so many of the big shots in the legislature hail from so far west. For instance, Rep. James Naifeh (D-Covington), Lt. Gov. John Wilder, and Attorney General Paul Summers are all from counties adjoining Shelby County, home of House Speaker Pro Tempore Lois DeBerry.

Thus, four of the most powerful state officials -- three of them legislators -- live so close to each other at the western edge of the state that a crow could fly from each of their homes to the other, take a little side trip for a drink from the Mississippi River, and arrive refreshed at the end of the circuit.

Another skirmish in this ongoing guerrilla warfare came recently over a bill, sponsored by Rep. Matt Kisber (D-Jackson) and Sen. Jim Kyle (D-Memphis), that attempts to block Metro Nashville from doing anything with its thermal plant that would raise the state's cost of heating and cooling its downtown buildings.

Before a vote could be taken, Reps. Ben West and Mary Pruitt (both D-Nashville) began protesting, saying that Nashville mayor Bill Purcell was trying to work something out on the thermal plant. "I just noticed that several members of this committee are from Memphis," West said. "Now it's my understanding that Memphis might want some help from us on its pro basketball arena. These things can work both ways."

"Is that blackmail?" one member of the committee shouted.

"You're darn right it's blackmail," West snapped back.

Kisber agreed to delay his bill. In the meantime, it will be a question of whether legislators draw even more battle lines between Metro Nashville and the Western Axis, or if they will remember the advice of their former leader, Ned McWherter. He would advise them not only to keep their nightgowns below their heads but to cover their backsides as well.

Joseph Sweat is a free-lance writer from Nashville.

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